Rather than wait to raise money for its major public affairs effort, PBS and its producers have decided to “get started online, using content that already exists from PBS and other partners,” says John Boland, PBS’s chief content officer.
The public affairs initiative, called Public Square for the past six years, was once envisioned as a weekly public affairs megaprogram for broadcast, then as a digital public affairs channel, and most recently as a portion of the PBS World multicast channel. Now the plan is to launch it early next year as a website offering forums for discussion and analysis of international news and global affairs.
The working title is PBS Engage, though an official name and more details will be announced next month.
The site will go live in the first quarter of 2007 as part of a major redesign and re-launch of PBS.org, according to Boland. He described the latest iteration of Public Square Nov. 8 during the Public Television Programmers Association at Amelia Island, Fla.
California Fault Line Productions—a nonprofit controlled by KCET in Los Angeles, PBS and Boland’s former station, KQED in San Francisco—is producing the website and plans to deliver a television pilot next summer. “The Web is where user participation works best, and television is about rich, in-depth storytelling,” said Sid Bedingfield, president of Fault Line and executive editor of the multimedia project. Bedingfield plans to engage audiences on both platforms, but will start to build interest and a community on the Web.
PBS began planning for a digital public affairs channel called Public Square in 2004 with research and development money from the Knight Foundation. One element that bubbled up during planning was Global Watch, an international affairs TV series proposed by KQED, KCET and Link TV, San Francisco-based producer and satellite programmer specializing in international programming. Knight and the Ford Foundation provided funding to pilot Global Watch, planned as an exclusive program for World, the multicast channel slated to launch nationally next year.
After signing on to helm the production in May and researching how to get rolling, Bedingfield, a former production exec with CNN International, proposed to launch the multimedia project as a website. “We think in a changing world that we need to consider fresh ways of attracting users and viewers,” he told Current.
Bedingfield described the new launch plan as a model for new multimedia projects—one that builds on the “immediacy, urgency and daily-ness of the Web” to create a community and then crafts a television program out of that. “We want to see the TV show as natural component of what’s going on the Web,” Bedingfield said.
“This doesn’t undermine the importance of television and the power and storytelling that television can bring” to treatments of global issues, he said. “We believe in the Web as a key component of the future of the dissemination of news and information. It’s where people increasingly are going for news and information,” he said.
“We’ll stress the importance of that by starting on the Web by creating a site for web users, and then a TV show for TV users,” Bedingfield said. He believes the two audiences will overlap.
The website will “provide a lot of in-depth, well-researched and thoughtful content from a variety of resources,” Bedingfield said. His staff will create some content, but will use pieces from PBS public affairs shows and news organizations around the globe to “seed discussions” on the website. PBS Engage content will emphasize analysis of global affairs topics and give users “things to think about and the tools to participate in the discussion,” he said.
Users will be invited to join discussion groups, form discussion groups, point to relevant stories elsewhere on the Web and upload their own videos. “Media as a two-way conversation is what the public is demanding now, and we want to find innovative ways to respond to that,” Bedingfield said. Software developers working on the project will create tools with which stations can create localized versions of the site.
A top priority for Bedingfield is developing a policy for moderating discussions and filtering user-generated content on PBS Engage. He intends to follow PBS editorial guidelines but must strike the right balance between encouraging users to express themselves and abiding by the conventions of fair-minded journalism.
Comments from forum participants will be posted live but any content that is offensiveor violates the rules of engagement will be pulled, he said. “We will try to find the right level of moderation to assure meaningful discussion, but we don’t want to be so heavy-handed that we squelch the discussion,” he said. “That is going to be the challenge—to find that balance.”
The television pilot, to be delivered next summer, will combine professionally produced field pieces and some user-generated content from the website that will be clearly labeled, Bedingfield said. Producers might pair an in-depth report on economic growth in China with a short essay from a web user in Shanghai.
“This is not a call-in show or a ‘text-in-your-thoughts’ show,” he said. “Engagement works on the Web. TV is where people go to be moved by the power of storytelling.”
posted Nov. 20, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee